In the following Election Tuesday post, Michael P. Lynch, author of In Praise of Reason, explains why we need shared standards of reason.
The Romney campaign declared last month that they weren’t going to be pushed around by fact-checkers. Such remarks were in turns horrifying and amusing to many, but their open acceptance by some on the Right was revealing. What it reveals is that current political disputes aren’t just over the facts. They are also over who has the best methods and way for determining what the facts are. And many on the Right are suspicious of “fact-checking” as just another way of using biased methods to impose a liberal view of the world.
This is frustrating. But rejecting it wholesale without trying to understand the underlying problem is a mistake. The real problem here is that when we can’t even agree over fact-finding methods, then we are disagreeing over our very standards of reason—over what counts as rational or justified and what doesn’t. And when that happens, we’ve hit rock bottom—the debate has grounded out on principles so basic it is hard to see how it can be resolved because neither side sees the other as rational.
Democracies are supposed to be spaces of reasons. In democratic politics, we ought to give and ask for reasons for our political views. In order to do that, however, we need some common currency of shared standards—some common principles to which we can all appeal when assessing each other’s claims. Without that, reason-giving breaks down and politics becomes war by other means. And that is what is happening in our country right now.
What this means is that those of us who favor scientific methods can’t be content with just heaping scorn on the other’s sides standards of rationality. Nor should we assume that everyone will just see the virtues of a scientific approach to evidence and reason. We need to do more, to actively how why—morally and politically and not just scientifically—some standards of reason are more rational than others. Ignore this, and we run the risk of more people giving up not only on fact-checkers—but the facts themselves.